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Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Day-Trip from Rome: Villa d'Este

A few months ago, back when Spring was just beginning to take hold and the flowers were in full bloom all over Rome, we decided it was just the right time to visit Villa d’Este. Now, I’ll be honest: one of the reasons I even knew about Villa d’Este is because it makes an appearance in the Lizzie McGuire Movie and I had been dying to visit. Just a 40-minute ride from Rome, it is perfect for a day-trip to get away and decompress your brain from the many museums in Rome. When you’re like me and you’ve spent the past year and a half visiting every single museum in Washington, D.C. and Italy, sometimes you just want to see something because it’s pretty.  And if Villa d’Este is one thing, it’s definitely pretty.

I've already decided that our future dream home needs a name and a ceramic plaque at the entrance. 
We went on a weekend in late April and there was quite a line just to buy tickets and get inside. I remember it was a holiday weekend, so when there’s a holiday and the weather is nice, the Italians love to get out of the city and explore the outdoors. We haven’t been back since then, but if you’re coming in the summer months, just be prepared for a little line to get in.

But first, a little history about Villa d’Este: it was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. For those of you familiar with the Borgia family (the Showtime series about the family is absolutely amazing), he was the son of Lucrezia Borgia and her husband, Alfonso d’Este and, therefore, grandson of Pope Alexander VI. It was completed sometime in the last quarter of the 16th century, after the Cardinal had died, and celebrated for its Renaissance style and hydraulic engineering that supplied water to the many fountains in the gardens. It eventually ended up property of the House of Hapsburg, where it fell into disrepair until the Italian State bought it after World War I and restored it to its former splendor. In 2001, it was included in UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. 

Today, you can see some of the ceiling frescos inside the villa, although it is mostly empty of any grand furniture (I was completely surprised that they allowed dogs to go in until I saw the inside). But the main attraction, for me, was the gardens, exactly the reason why it is best to visit in the warmer months of the year.

She was having way too much fun with all the water fountains everywhere. 
Below are some of our pictures in the gardens of Villa d’Este:

The Fountain of Pegasus
Le Cento Fontane, The Hundred Fountains.
Our model dog. She can be a poster dog for Villa d'Este.

Le Fontane dell'Ovato, The Oval Fountain

One of my favorite flowers that bloom everywhere in Italy during the Spring is wisteria. I swear if I ever have a house in a warm climate, I'm getting those. 

For more information on ticket prices and opening hours, visit the Villa d'Este site here

Friday, August 1, 2014

What & Where to Eat in Andalusia (Plus, Madrid!)

Here’s a quick and fun Friday post for all the foodies: everything we ate in Spain (or most of it). While I’ve definitely become a foodie when I’m traveling abroad, I’m not usually diligent enough to take pictures of everything I eat because all the really good stuff gets eaten really fast. But for Spain, I put in my best effort, because this is a country where it pays to known ahead of time what to order. Most of the places we went to didn’t exactly have descriptions of their plates, so it was definitely helpful to have the tips of my uncle on where to go and what to order. And now you guys will have it too!


Huevos Rotos (Potatoes, fried eggs, and, in this case, ham) at my uncle's house. 
El Brillante – This is one of those places that as soon as you see it, you know it’s legit. Very no frills, but packed with locals at lunchtime, it can be a little intimidating for a tourist, especially if you don’t speak the language, but it’s totally worth it. Just shoulder yourself into the bar and order some beer and some tapas or bocados and you will thank me!
Dish to try: Callos Madrileños

La Casa del Abuelo
La Casa del Abuelo – Another one of those teeny tiny places where you have to shoulder your way in and stand while you eat, this place had amazing Gambas al Ajillo. These are tiny shrimp served HOT in clay plates filled with a yummy oil and garlic sauce, possibly one of my favorite tapas. Wherever you are in Spain, you must order this! This restaurant has two locations one on each side of the street.
Dish to try: Gambas al Ajillo

Gambas al Ajillo
Tarta de San Marcos, not from Andalusia, but a very yummy dessert, nonetheless.


Patatas Bravas and Pescaito Frito at Bar el Moriles
Bar el Moriles Pata Negra – This was by far our favorite place out of everywhere we went. It was ridiculously cheap and the food was ridiculously good. It is not exactly near the historic center of Cordoba, but totally worth a visit from wherever you are. In fact, we loved it so much that that was the only place we went to for two days in Cordoba. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Dishes to try: Salmorejo, Flamenquin, Pescaito Frito

Salmorejo, like Gazpacho, but better
Flamenquin (breaded steak rolled up with ham and cheese on the inside). All this for 6EUR!

Mollete con Jamon & Cafe con Leche
Breakfast in Seville – No, this is not the name of a restaurant. We didn’t really use the internet or my uncle for help finding a place to have breakfast. Instead, we would just wander into a bar somewhere not to close to a major tourist attraction to avoid inflated prices. However, we did know what to order: Mollete con jamon. When my uncle told me about this, I was a little embarrassed to order it, mostly because it’s not usually written on the menu and it’s a funny-sounding name. Luckily for me I have my fearless hubby who does whatever it takes for good food. Mollete is basically a type of bread that the Spanish have warm, with a little olive oil drizzled over it. You can also add tomatoes, or ham, in our case. Call it, the Spanish breakfast of Champions!
Dish to try: Mollete con Jamon

Bodega Santa Cruz Las Columnas – After having a totally forgettable lunch, my uncle texted us with the name of this place and, even though we were full, we decided to go and at least have a bocadillo. I’m so glad we did! It is very authentic Andalusian, the menu written on the wall and if you sit at the bar, the bartenders will keep track of your order on the counter with chalk.
Dish to try: Pringá

Cafe Bombon, Espresso with Condensed Milk at the bottom; the perfect after-dinner drink!
El Tabernaculo – Another place that we went to more than once while we were in Granada, this restaurant (more like a bar) is extremely casual. There were only two tables outside when we went (in May), and maybe a couple more inside. Everybody else piles up at the bar or stands outside on the street. And make no mistake, if you come at prime lunchtime or prime dinnertime (very late for the Spaniards), it will be packed. The selection isn’t extensive, but what they do have is very good. Remember, in Granada, it is very respected tradition to be served free tapas with every drink round, and they get better the more rounds you order. We would have two or three rounds of drinks, and then maybe order an extra plate of something specific that we wanted and were more than satisfied. Don’t be turned off by the floor-to-ceiling coverings of saints. It adds to the charm!

Assorted yumminess at El Tabernaculo
Los Diamantes – We didn’t actually go to this restaurant, but it comes well recommended so I thought I would include it for variety’s sake. It is actually right across from El Tabernaculo, we just didn’t go because it was always very full and we were too hungry to wait. Los Diamantes have more than one branch in the city, but I think the best one is on Calle Naves (actually, that’s probably the best street to dine in Granada).

And that’s it! This concludes my series of posts on all things Spain and next week I promise we’ll go back to Italy!

For more posts on our trip to Spain, check out:
-       Four Days in Madrid

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Visiting the Alhambra & Generalife in Granada (Plus: Where to take the best picture of the Alhambra)

Summer vacation is officially over for me (I adapted very well to the Italian style of closing down for a month ;)) and I’m back and ready to blog until my fingers fall off. I still have a bunch of stuff to talk about from before my summer vacation, but we also saw a few cool places and checked off a couple UNESCO sites from our list so I am so excited to share all of our adventures with you guys.

To continue where I left off from our trip to Spain, today I’m going to share our experiences visiting Granada and the world-famous Alhambra.

Personally, I think Spain is a little underrated in people’s travel lists, especially when you compare it to a country like Italy. Yet, for me, Spain is just as beautiful (if not more) than Italy. Tiny little towns, great food, lots of culture and history, and more UNESCO sites than I know what to do with :). Even when people do visit Spain, a town like Granada may be skipped in favor of Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, etc. We ended up staying three full days and one half day in Granada and based on that, I feel one should spend at least two days: one day for Granada and one full day for the Alhambra.

I don’t know about you, but when my uncles told me the Alhambra would take up a full day, I was a little skeptical because all I could picture in my mind is the famous Courtyard of the Lions in a palace like any other. But really, that courtyard, even the palace where it resides, is only 50 minutes of your entire day in Alhambra.

The Alhambra consists of the Palace of Charles V (which includes a small museum of the Alhambra), the Alcazaba (citadel), the Royal Palaces (which in itself is divided into three different areas constructed in different time periods), and its gardens, Generalife. Now, when you buy your ticket, you can choose a morning timeslot (from 8:30 am to 2:00 pm all year long) or an afternoon timeslot (2:00 pm to 8:00 pm March-October or 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm October-March). There is also, I believe, a night time slot during the summer.  Basically, these timeslots mean that you have six hours to wander all over the Alhambra, HOWEVER, you will have a specific 50 minute timeslot within those six hours to visit the Royal Palaces. You must go during your scheduled time or risk not seeing the palaces at all, which is probably the main reason you’re there to begin with. I’m explaining all this because this wasn’t really clear to us until we arrived.

My other tip is that as soon as you buy a plane ticket to Spain (maybe even as soon as you decide a specific date), BUY YOUR TICKETS TO THE ALHAMBRA, ESPECIALLY IF ITS HIGH SEASON! We didn’t do this and paid dearly with sleep for it. We arrived in Granada on a Thursday night (there are no high speed trains from Seville to Granada, another thing to keep in mind) and innocently asked our hotel concierge about acquiring tickets to the Alhambra. She pretty much scared us half to death when we told her we hadn’t reserved them. She informed us that tickets were sold out, however, they do sell about 400 per day at the door, you just have to get there at an ungodly hour to get them.

The next day, a Friday, we were leaving the hotel at 6:00 am because there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to see the Alhambra in the four days I was spending in Granada. Even though we were a little scared, we were optimistic because we still had three other days to try and get tickets. As the concierge had said, there was already a line when we arrived at the ticket office (less than 100 people in front of us at this point, some without tickets and some with reservations to pick up their tickets). Basically, at least that day there were indeed some 400 tickets being sold for the morning slot and another 200 being sold for the afternoon slot. This was in May, so if we had gotten there an hour later, we would have still gotten tickets, but you also want to be entering the complex right when your time slot starts or risk not having enough time to see it all. I’m guessing if you go in August and don’t have tickets, you better be making that line at like five in the morning.

With all that taken care of, we can now get to the fun and beautiful part of the Alhambra. Most of the pictures I’m sharing with you here are from the Royal Palaces and the gardens because, let’s face it, it’s definitely the most picturesque. However, the entire fortress is absolutely a must-see-before-you-die type of location. Also, if you can afford it and you’re not doing a guided tour, I absolutely recommend splurging 20EUR to buy the official guide. We used it while we walked and I’m actually leafing through it now to explain the pictures.

Entrance to Alhambra with a map
Here you can see the neighborhood of Albayzin in the background. Taken from the courtyard in front of the Alcazaba. 
Inside the Alcazaba, view from the important watchtower, Torre de la Vela.

On January 2, 1492, the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella was first raised in this watchtower as a symbol of Spanish conquest. Today, you see the  European Union flag, the Andalusia flag, the Spanish flag, and the Granada flag at the far end. 
The façade of the Comares Palace from the Patio of the Gilded Room. 

The detail in one of the doors. 

Court of the Myrtles
No idea which part of the palace this is, but the detail is spectacular
First view when you enter the Courtyard of the Lions

Close-up of the fountain
The views from inside were spectacular. 

El Mirador de Lindaraja, absolutely stunning
The Garden of Lindaraja

Here are also some pictures of the gardens of Generalife:

Patio de la Acequia, or Patio of the Irrigation Ditch according to the internet, but I don't know how official that name is

From another angle

It was a great day all in all, we ended up leaving at around 2:30 pm or 3:00. It was seriously one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to in my life and I highly recommend it if you are anywhere in the south of Spain. Obviously, after being awake since 5 in the morning, we left and went directly to the hotel for a siesta (I'm telling you, some customs are just so easy to adapt).

The other thing I wanted to include in this post is where to take the best pictures of the Alhambra. Ask anybody there or any guidebook and they'll tell you to go to the Mirador de San Nicolas in the heart of the traditional gypsy neighborhood (the other area of Granada that deserves to be explored). We went the next day at sunset and while the view really is spectacular, as you'll see below, it's kind of hard to take a picture because it is literally full of people playing music, smoking, hanging out before dinner, etc. 

If you want an equally good picture with less people, there is this place on the way to the Museo Cuevas de Sacromonte, right on the street Camino de Sacromonte where we found this view and took these pictures:

Personally, I think this view is just as good as the other one, if you're willing to go a little off the beaten track to find it. When we went to this museum, the direct path was closed so we had to detour following the signs and ended up here on the way. I'm including a little map of where it is, you can only really see it in Google Maps' Satellite View, to hopefully make it a little easier to find it.

If you zoom in to the panoramic viewpoint green star, you can even see the arches from the above picture. The GPS coordinates are 37°10'54.6"N, 3°35'00.3"W (+37°10'54.6", -3°35'00.3" if you are inputting into Google Maps).

For the Mirador de San Nicolas, we went in the afternoon for a sunset picture of the Alhambra, but were not really happy with the results, so we decided to get up before dawn on our last day and get a sunrise picture instead.

In Arabic, Alhambra means La Roja, or The Red One because the walls look red. You can definitely see what they mean during the sunrise and sunset. 

If you're still reading thus far, this concludes the mother of all Spain posts. I will do one more, a fun one on the different things we ate in Spain just because it was just so delicious! After that, it's back to Italy!

Also check out my other posts from our trip to Spain: